Pushing Farmers Out of Farming

Forty years after the first Green Revolution was launched, Indian agriculture is faced with an unprecedented crisis. Unmindful of the destructive prowess of the alient technology, the impact of which is being felt all over the country – farm incomes plummeting, soil gasping for breath, and farmers being pushed out of agriculture – India is now preparaing to usher in the second Green Revolution.

The Rs 10,000-million Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agricultural Research and Education, formally launched by the American President George Bush at Hyderabad in southern India on March 3, was more or less a soft launch of the second Green Revolution that brings Indian agriculture under the direct control of US Corporate houses. If the first Green Revolution was facilitated by the introduction of Land Grant system of agriculture research and education into India, the second Green Revolution is being tailored to the needs of the American agri-business interests.

The year 2005 witnessed a farm technology agreement signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the United States president, George Bush. Addressing a joint session of the US Congress during his visit, Prime Minister said: “The Green Revolution lifted countless millions above poverty…. I am very happy to say that U.S. President George Bush and I have decided to launch second generation of India-US collaboration in agriculture.”

Following the agreement, a team of Indian agricultural scientists visited US in December 2005 to work out the modalities of the programme. It was followed by a return visit by US agricultural scientists, and the entire exercise has been kept confidential and prepared in a hush-hush manner. The dominance of the American agri-business becomes clear when one finds the US supermarket giant Wal-Mart and the seed multination Monsanto on the board of the Initiative.

Tailored on the objective of transferring the unwanted and risky technology of genetic engineering on plants and animals, which incidentally is not finding many takers worldwide, the US finds India an easy dumping ground. For the cash-starved Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the umbrella organisation of agricultural research and education in the country, the Knowledge Initiative comes as a shot in the arm. It will provide an opportunity to plant scientists to justify the huge public sector investment on a monolithic and dying research body.

The research proposal includes Rs 1900 million to be incurred on crop biotechnology research and another Rs 2000 million for the application of transgenic technology in livestock and poultry. Interestingly, all this will be under the guidance of the American scientists who will receive a fee of Rs 4000 million.

By setting aside Rs 2000 million for value-addition, quality improvement and food safety, the Knowledge Initiative has paved the way for the entry of the food retail giants like Wal-Mart and Tesco. The UPA government’s flagship programme Bharat Nirman has actually been laying out necessary infrastructure in the rural areas so as to facilitate the entry of the food retails chains. The Indo-US agriculture technology cooperation is being put in place without first ascertaining the reasons behind the terrible agrarian crisis, much of it the result of imposing environmentally-unfriendly alien technology, the government embarks on the faulty promise of a ‘second’ green revolution. Even before the ink dried on the technical cooperation agreement, news reports pointed out that two of the American multinationals, Monsanto and Wal-Mart, have already said they are not interested in research and development but on the increased trading opportunities that India offers.

With government facilitating the process, the Indian industry and business is upbeat on the potential of agriculture (read agribusiness). While the FIICI-sponsored ‘reforms for raising farm incomes’ aims at pumping in huge public finances to push in an industry-driven agriculture, the farmer has been left to survive on the margins. Agriculture reforms are not aimed at resurrecting agriculture, but to bring profits for the industry.

The lure and glamour of industry-driven agriculture in turn is sure to acerbate the existing crisis. The new technology that the multinationals (as well as the ICAR) are planning to provide is so sophisticated that a majority of the farmers will remain outside the ambit. Precision farming is one such misplaced technology that has received budgetary support from the government. Removing the bottlenecks in the commodity supply chain management by amending the APMC Act and also by enlarging the scope of future trading are aimed at helping the new range of middlemen and business.

Even in America, the entry of retail chains in the agriculture sector have only shifted the profits to a horde of middlemen — retailers, processors, certification agencies, quality controller and so on. Farmers earn only 4 per cent from whatever they sell. In 1990, farmers would earn 70 per cent of what they would sell. The rest of the profits are shared by the chain of middlemen. In Canada, the National Farmers Union has in a study shown how the combined profits of 70 retailer and agribusiness firms have multiplied whereas the farmers have mounting losses. The same model is now being shifted to India.

No wonder, the Indian Economic Survey 2005-06 categorically talks of dismantling the minimum support price (MSP) and procurement-based food subsidy system. The two planks of the ‘famine-avoidance’ strategy that our planners had put in place, and which were instrumental in making the country food self-sufficient, are now on the hit list. This will enable the food retailers to directly purchase from farmers. In other words, Indian farmers will in future be faced with not only the vagaries of the monsoon but also the market.

The agriculture business strategy that is being prepared, for which Rs 900 million has been earmarked, hinges on reforms being introduced in the name of increasing food production and minimising the price risks that the farmers continue to be faced with. Whether it destroys the production capacity of the farm lands and leads to further marginalisation of the farming communities does not figure in the policy planning process.

In a country where land holdings are meagre, the biggest challenge is to ensure how can agriculture be made more attractive for these small and marginal farmers. At the same time, with the collapse of the first Green Revolution, agriculture faces a serve crisis in sustainability in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, parts of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. As a result, Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh are fast heading towards desertification – a process that leads to the inability of the lands to sustain the production levels achieved at the height of the green revolution era.

Although the land holding size is diminishing, the answer does not lie in allowing the private companies to move in by way of contract farming. Private companies enter agriculture with the specific objective of garnering more profits from the same piece of land. These companies, if the global experience is any indication, bank upon still more intensive farming practices, drain the soil of nutrients and suck ground water in a couple of years, and render the fertile lands almost barren after four to five years. These companies would then hand over the barren and unproductive land to the farmers who leased them, and would move to another fertile piece of land.

If it has taken 40 years to realize that the technology promoted by the USAID and blindly aped by the National Agricultural Research Systems in the developing countries, and that too after inflicting an irreparable damage to human health and environment, was faulty; what is the guarantee that the second Green Revolution being promoted by the United States again will not leave behind still more damaging consequences? Who will be responsible for the destruction that is being enforced through corporate control of agriculture coming mainly through genetic manipulations and further destruction of the natural resource base? Second Green Revolution will only acerbate the existing crisis. It will only help push farmers out of agriculture thereby allowing private companies to not only take possession of the farm lands but also destroy their production capacity by excessively and intensively farmed systems. Second Green revolution will bring in the western agricultural model into India – drive out farmers and instead create an enabling environment for the agri-business industries to produce food. #

(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based researcher and policy analyst specialising in global food and agriculture).

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